With our first week in the rearview mirror, our students are reflecting on a terrific beginning. Our first seven days have been packed with new experiences, new friendships, and new discoveries.
After a busy opening weekend, we started our first Ethics and Leadership class with what is now an SEGL tradition: the Infamous Skittles Scenario. This interactive activity (you can read the set-up handout here) is part of our first case study of the semester: Introduction to Ethical Decisions. The morning was filled with vociferous laughter, intense negotiations, and a few simulated gun-shots; the discussion that followed was insightful and full of interdisciplinary connections and questions: What would you do if there were no rules? Would you be altruistic or selfish? Would you save yourself first, or work as a group? What implications does that have for our beliefs about human nature? The ideal form of government? The best way to allocate scarce resources?
After the Skittles discussion we delivered a brief lecture on the three classic Western ethicists: Aristotle, Kant, and John Stuart Mill. The goal of this lecture is to begin giving students a tool kit for evaluating ethical choices. (You can view the version of this lecture that we give to our online “Integrity 101” students here.)
On Tuesday the students had their first Arabic and Chinese class, which meets once a week. We begin with seven sessions of intensive Arabic, giving time to cultural norms and perspectives as well, and then turn to Chinese. The goal of this course is not fluency, but demystification: many of our students go on to study Arabic or Chinese in college, and all of them will need to confront the Arabic and Chinese world views as global leaders.
The students also had their first English class, which included our traditional first journal-writing session in Dupont Circle. We sent the students off with words from Ernest Hemingway; when he had writer’s block he would always tell himself “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” (It is probably worth noting that this group wrote their sentences in the frigid weather that we hope is slowly lifting from the DC area!)
On Wednesday we began with a lecture on the latest brain research on how students learn. Our teaching philosophy at SEGL comes in part from two books: Daniel Willingham’s <em>Why Students Don’t Like School</em> and Daniel Coyle’s <em>The Talent Code</em>. These books argue, among other things, that intelligence is not fixed–it is malleable, that imagination depends on having a strong knowledge background, and that you learn faster when you face challenges that are just on the edge of your comfort zone.
Following that lecture we had our first Seven Dollar Lunch Day of the term (students receive $7 and can eat–in small groups–in local take-away restaurants). And then former Nixon White House official Egil “Bud” Krogh paid his first visit to the Spring 2014 semester. Bud worked at the highest levels of government at one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. Most notoriously, President Nixon selected him as the co-leader of the “Plumbers,” who investigated and attempted to discredit Daniel Ellsburg after the release of the Pentagon Papers. As part of that attempt, Bud authorized a covert, illegal break-in at the offices of Ellsburg’s psychiatrist (the two men who facilitated that break-in became part of the Watergate break-in soon afterwards). Many historians believe Krogh’s choice was a key reason for the downfall of Nixon’s administration. Krogh has spent the past 35 years helping others–especially young people–avoid the same mistakes he made. To do this, he has created a decision-making matrix called “The Integrity Zone” that helps students (and others) determine when an external or internal threat (groupthink, pressure for results, naiveté, etc.) might threaten the ability to act with integrity.
But Bud is also famous among SEGL students for his stories. Other than the Plumbers fiasco, the time Nixon and Elvis met secretly in the Oval Office (Bud arranged the meeting and was the only other person present) is perhaps the most famous. And Bud went through many of his favorites, taking time to show how the decisions he made came in part because he did not recognize certain “threats” to his integrity.
On Friday, Bud returned and asked students to put their decision making skills to the test. Over two hours of engaging back-and-forth discussion, he presented a real-world life-and-death crisis that he faced while working for Nixon. The students used their own moral compasses and critical thinking ability to devise their own solutions–healthy disagreement abounded–and then Bud shared what he did and asked the students to evaluate it. (Which crisis? How was it resolved? You’ll have to ask a current or past SEGL student–we don’t want to ruin the surprise for future classes here!)
That night the students had an impromptu dance party after a pizza dinner (special accommodations for our gluten-free charges) that involved several line-dances, lots of laughter, and great promise for the remaining 14 weeks we have together.
Next up: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.